Freewill, Determinism and Santa Claus

Note: this essay assumes that you have a basic understanding of non-duality and emptiness. It not, it probably won't make much sense. Recommended readings include Verses from the Center and Mulamadhyamakakarika.

One of the longest running arguments in philosophy is the Freewill vs Determinism argument. Basically it's this:

I think we can all agree that to some extent, our behavior is governed by things outside our control. When there is a loud noise, we jump; when we are hungry and there is food available, we eat. But do we get to decide what food to eat first and how much and how fast, etc., etc.? Given that some of our behaviors are determined without us deciding, the question seems to boil down to "Are there any things we freely decide?" Or maybe "Is any part of our behavior under our control?" Or maybe simply "Is there such a thing as Freewill?"

Taking this last question as the starting point, I'll see what I can do to shed some light on the argument by asking a seemly unrelated question: "Is there a Santa Claus?" Well, what exactly do we mean when we ask such a question? Are we asking "Does Santa Claus have material existence?" If so, the answer is "No." But things don't have to have material existence to influence our behavior - consider things like Love, Anger, Friendship, etc., things like Patriotism, Freedom, or even things like Mathematics and Philosophy. These surely exist and have influence to one degree or another in our lives.

So even if Santa Claus doesn't have material existence, does he exist in some other way? The answer certainly seems to be "Yes." Small children write him letters, they behave better during early December, department stores hire men to impersonate Santa, Santa rides at the end of the Christmas parades. Dear ole non-materially existent Santa surely influences our behavior - at least in the West. He exists!

Now neither Determinism nor Freewill have material existence. But does Freewill exist in the same way dear ole Santa exists? Does the fact that in our day-to-day behavior we act as though we had Freewill have any influence on that behavior? I would certainly argue "Yes." People in situations where they perceive that they have restricted Freewill, behave differently from people who don't feel their Freewill is restricted. See for example prisons, concentration camps, people living under harsh dictatorships, etc. These people certainly behave noticeably different from people living in less restricted societies.

So Freewill has some kind of existence and it influences our behavior. But is this Santa Claus like Freewill just another determining factor in Determinism? Is it only the concept of Freewill that we have proved exists and that the concept has an influence? Or is there anything deeper here? Do we need to prove a non-conceptual existence for Freewill? If so, we also would need to prove a non-conceptual existence for Determinism! But the fact is, both of these are concepts. They are concepts that we've invented in order to make some sense of this world we find ourselves embedded in.

But if we move beyond concepts, Freewill and Determinism drop away. There is only the unfolding of the moment. We exquisitely experience the moment, but have no ability to comment on it. While we are in the non-conceptual, we can't describe what we are experiencing. Of course, the moment we drop back out of the non-conceptual, we do have concepts to describe our understanding of the non-conceptual - but only in conceptual terms that can never actually capture the experience.

So now the question has been boiled down to which of these two concepts is the most relevant in understanding and explaining our experiences. But the answer turns out to be "It depends on how you look at it." From a practical perspective, Freewill does make sense in trying to understand human behavior. From a broader, impersonal perspective, Determinism makes more sense. But neither perspective is a perspective that can be adopted all the time! So despite the fact that Freewill and Determinism seems to be mutually exclusive, the answer to the question "Is it Freewill or Determinism?" seems to be "It depends on how you look at it."  

Leigh Brasington
2005/05/07


Concave, Convex, Waves, Particles, Freewill, Determinism

Go into the kitchen and get a simple bowl. Now examine it. Is it concave or convex? If you look at it from the perspective from which you fill it with soup, the bowl is concave. If you flip it over, the bowl is convex. So which is it - concave or convex. Since concave and convex are mutually exclusive, can it be both?

One of the most startling experiments in 20th century physics is the double slit experiment with light. With no particle detector at the slits, the light produces interference patterns as it passes thru the slits - just like you would expect if light is a wave. But placing a particle detector indicates that light is made of particles - and "disappears" the interference patterns. So which is it? Is light a wave or a particle? Since waves and particles are mutually exclusive, can it be both?

So do we have Freewill or is everything Determined? From some perspectives, it certainly looks like we make our own decisions. But from other perspectives, it all looks predetermined. Since Freewill and Determinism are mutually exclusive, can it be both?

Concave, Convex, Waves, Particles, Freewill and Determinism are all concepts. They are Not reality! If you have mutually exclusive concepts yet reality exhibits both dependent on the perspective you take, the fault lies in the limitations of the mutually exclusive concepts. You simply can't say it is one or it is the other. This is a participatory universe - which means there are many concepts that seek to explain reality exclusive of the observer but are unable to do so simply because the reality to be explained and the concepts used to try to explain it depend on the observer as well as the "external" reality. So, as above, "Is it Freewill or Determinism?" It depends on how you look at it.

Leigh Brasington
2011/10/09


Further Reading

Generally, dicsussions of Freewill and Determinism are made in the context of linear causality. But linear causality is a poor (limited) way of explaining what's happening. Much more useful is mutual causality; a deep understanding of mutual causality yields a viewpoint from which it can be seen that neither the concept of Freewill nor the concept of Determinism can offer a full explaination. An excellent introduction to both systems theory and mutual causality is Jonna Macy's book:


Hey There Little Electron, Why Won’t You Tell Me Where You Came From?
Have We Been Interpreting Quantum Mechanics Wrong This Whole Time?
Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them from Wired
Does Belief in Free Will Lead to Action? from ScienceDaily
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